illustration of person scrolling phone with outlines of people talking aggressively above him

Late September last year I decided to take my diet a bit more seriously. I went to a couple weddings, and my suits were… let’s say, a bit snug.

I’ve always loved exercising, but I’ve also always loved eating. Last year, I trained for a grueling marathon, and after finishing it, one fell out of favor for the other. I’d clearly sailed past my era of eat anything you want so long as you go for a jog.

Simply put: I wasn’t taking care of myself, it showed, and I could feel it.

So I vowed to put more thought into my eating habits. Immediately, the TikTok algorithm knew. Because your FYP seems to know what you’re up to before you do. It was then I stumbled down the vast wormhole of what I’ll call DietTok, a subset of TikTok dedicated to nutrition, eating habits, exercise, and weight loss. It’s a mix of all the worst parts of diet culture in the U.S. — fad diets, body shaming — with an algorithm that feeds you that content repeatedly.

By its programming, TikTok will always lead you toward content you find intriguing, good or bad. Back when I adopted a dog, I wrote about how my online life changed overnight — it was the same with committing to a healthier lifestyle, except much more pernicious. The world of crash diets and influencers peddling pseudoscientific shortcuts is dangerous. But over the past seven months or so I’ve also seen the helpful parts of DietTok, the people trying to give practical, realistic advice and encouragement.

It’s seems like every other content creator on TikTok is on a weight loss journey or promoting how they got a six pack. Parsing your way through that morass is necessary for anyone interested in content that might actually be healthy.

Navigating diet advice on TikTok

Before we get too far into the murky depths of DietTok, it’s important to understand how to get good nutrition advice. For that I called up Christy Harrison, registered dietician and author of the books The Wellness Trap and Anti-Diet. Her first bit of advice? Maybe don’t rely on social media for nutrition facts.

Studies, and my own IRL experience, have shown that an innocuous search about health and wellness can lead to misleading information and even dangerous eating disorder content.

“That is a risk and is a huge problem with these platforms,” Harrison told Mashable. “[Think about] not putting yourself in the line of fire of that misinformation firehose when you’re vulnerable. [Consider] letting yourself take time, step away from social media, seeing what you can dig up in other spaces. But also consider the fact that our desire to lose weight, or get healthier, or change our eating, or exercise is, itself, often driven by diet culture.”

There’s good reason to be wary of social media and TikTok in particular when it comes to your health. A study released last year showed that many popular nutrition TikToks push diet culture and weight loss. Just three percent of posts were weight-inclusive, the University of Vermont researchers found. Another study showed that teens were shown content about disordered eating within 30 minutes of joining TikTok. Ozempic, the diabetes drug people are using for weight loss, even became a trend on the platform.

That’s frightening, especially since young people practically use TikTok as their search engine. Searching TikTok now for terms like “weight loss journey” or “weight loss” pull up warnings from the platform. Shoddy or harmful weight-related content online is not new. Tumblr had serious issues with pro-anorexia communities, and YouTube influencers have long made unrealistic “what I eat in a day” videos. But with TikTok, you can’t always escape this kind of content because of its unique For You Page experience. Also, if people are using TikTok as a search engine, then they’re using it for answers. Think of many hacks and tricks have you learned from TikTok — some helpful, some not — and now apply that to your body and health. That’s quite the risky proposition.

screenshot of phone screen showing warning message for search for weight loss journey on tiktok

Credit: Screenshot: TikTok

screenshot of phone screen showing warning message for search for weight loss on tiktok

Credit: Screenshot: TikTok

It’s not like people are going to give up social media or TikTok completely. How do you identify bad info? Harrison recommend the SIFT method from digital literacy expert Mike Caulfield that asks folks to stop, investigate sources, find better coverage, and trace claims back to their origin. Basically: Slow down. Taking a TikTok as truth is one thing if it’s a harmless animal fact; it’s another when it involves your body. And, Harrison pointed out, understand that the most outrageous people with the trendiest claims might rise to the top. Ignore them and find what works for you and not what claims to hack the system. And, if you have a doctor you trust, talk with them first.

The “Weight Loss Journey”

At first, I found being on DietTok a bit frightening. There are lots of people promoting bad things out there. I got sucked down a rabbit hole of a man who claimed he lost weight via severe fasting and believed that calories aren’t real. (They are.) I didn’t actually believe him, but his content was engaging. So guess who appeared in my feed? (Note: I will not link to people promoting unhealthy or untrue things. Just trust they exist.) I saw people claiming it is healthier to crash diet and lose a ton of weight very fast. I saw a kid basically copying Liver King. And I witnessed so many people replacing tasty foods with awful, unsustainable substitutes.

Diet culture is so wildly entangled in American culture, so it tracks that it would have a large footprint on TikTok. We’ve been reinventing ways to starve our bodies or quickly lose weight for decades. What is Keto if not Atkins? And don’t they both resemble the carnivore diet propped up by “manly” rightwing dudes? We always find ways to repackage old diets, why should TikTok be any different? According to Harrison, a dude named William Banting was pushing a low-carb, meat-heavy diet back in the 1800s. Diet culture never really goes away; it just morphs according to the platform and the times. For example: Harrison’s latest book explores the culture around wellness, which (my words, not hers) can often mean diets but, you know, with green juice.

That’s not to say there isn’t actual helpful content out there. I found Adam Sullivan, an Australian trainer who affectionately refers to his audience as the c-word (again, Australian) while doling out factually sound advice. Shocking, wild things, like no one food is bad and calories are real (but not to be feared) — and that you cannot lose or gain a ton of fat in a short amount of time. It was a breath of fresh air and, frankly, a reminder to myself that I was trying to improve my lifestyle, not hack my way to a body society deems acceptable. (Also, I could listen to an Australian person read the phone book because the accent rules, so that helped.)

With time — eight months now — I was able to settle into a healthier routine that fits me. It’s something akin to intuitive eating. Just look at the meals I’ve been making to celebrate Succession‘s final season. They are anything but diet food, and yet I’ve lost weight.

How much weight have I lost? That’s none of your goddamn business. Because I know putting an exact number out there, on a public platform for the world to see, might not be a healthy idea.

If talking with Harrison and being on TikTok during a *~weight loss journey~* has taught me anything, it’s that a weight loss journey is a fool’s errand. I feel like it’s something people post about on TikTok for clout and, often, to sell you on the idea that they have the solutions. The reality is that there’s no universal truth to weight loss. It’s going to be different for everyone.

I’ve had yo-yoing weight since high school, the scale fluctuating as I aged, and it took me being a grown adult to realize that there was no secret to losing weight. A journey implies that there’s an end point, a future destination, a number to fixate on. But being more aware of what you put into your body allows you to enjoy the present.

My FYP is largely back to normal — cooking tutorials, dog videos, and niche comedy. Maybe I’m getting less diet content because I never went on a diet.


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